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Remember that old saying "Be careful what you wish for.... you might get it"? The Southwest's biggest success story is finding out first-hand just what that means.
How do you know when a young band has arrived? Maybe when an article about them starts by asking that question. This past year has seen a few key groups rise to the level of "overnight sensation"--not-so-new outfits like Smashing Pumpkins, Blind Melon, and The Cranberries--and now Tempe, Arizona's own local heroes, Gin Blossoms, are suddenly big stars.
Like those other groups, the Gin Blossoms have been around for years, playing and touring and slugging it out in the local music scenes of the Southwest. When their debut A&M album, New Miserable Experience (doesn't that title say it all, you Generation X-ers?), was released last year, critics raved but fans ignored....until the God Of Youth Awareness, MTV, smiled down upon the quintet and decided to play their "Hey Jealousy" video ad nauseam. People took notice, Beavis and Butt-Head took notice, sales soared, bigger tours beckoned and success was here at last!
But it was a little disconcerting to this sensitive band, as it would prove to be for their contemporaries (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, et al). It's a weird trip, to hear these young guns tell it, to try so hard to make it and then, indeed, make it and feel like you didn't really want what you thought you wanted all along. How you will handle success is an old question (as old as Elvis, as old as Jolson), but what happens when you're so disillusioned so quickly that you never have a chance to enjoy yourself? Even Elvis had a good time before he hit the Army.
This new breed of bands, which Gin Blossoms are in the thick of, doesn't seem to know what they want--which, if you think about it, is pretty self-defining. "It's a weird trip," says lead singer Robin Wilson. "You work so hard, but than when you get there, you realize what you were working so hard for is really something that's out of your reach. Peace and security and art--that all seems to go by the wayside when your record sells."
So when in doubt--as these bands most certainly are--tour, tour,tour. Stay on the road until the hubbub and furor dies down, sweat it out and then maybe, when it's time to make your follow-up record, the heat will be off and you can go back to simply making music. That's all you wanted, anyway. In the Gin Blossoms' case, adding to the pressure that's beyond their control, of course, is when an ex-band member kills himself because he's a manic-depressive alcohol-abuser and everybody wants to know if it was the band's success that did him in. Geez, talk about pressure!
The Gin Blossoms--Robin Wilson, guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, bassist Bill Lean [sic], guitarist Scott Johnson and drummer and resident cute boy Philip Rhodes--are on that treadmill, touring their asses off, not even thinking about going into the studio for another year or so. Isn't that milking the success? Isn't that being disingenuous and insincere and, well, a little materialistic? How do you handle these issues if you're the leader of a hot young band? Why is life so confusing? And who said MTV should be the purveyor of youth culture, anyway? I asked Jesse Valenzuela these questions when we sat down to talk recently. The dichotomy of success versus dissatisfaction is intriguing to those of us who don't have to deal with such issues. Valenzuela proved to be as eloquent in his answers as he is in his guitar playing.
THE MUSIC PAPER: You guys were real road dogs before New Miserable Experience hit big, weren't you? What did you learn from all that touring?
JESSE VALENZUELA: Yeah, we toured for years before we even had a record deal. And then even after the album came out it didn't hit right away, so we just toured and toured with everybody from the Neville Brothers to Toad The Wet Sprocket.
What we learned was to trust the audience, not whatever hype was swirling around. If you're good on stage and you're tight as a band and you really believe in what you're playing and doing and can convey that to the crowd, then you have something.
TMP: You seem to have a bit in common with bands like Blind Melon, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and even Guns N' Roses in that your record was out for a while before one single propelled the record up the charts. Does there come a point, before the hoopla, when you think the album isn't going to sell very much and you deal with that?
VALENZUELA: Yeah. It's weird. You get all set up to think your album is a dud or that the success is good but limited, you know? Then a year later or something, MTV decides to play your video and everything just explodes and goes nuts. It's almost unfair in a way, psychologically, 'cause you're prepared for failure and then it all turns around.
TMP: I would think that would be a good thing, actually. Like, "Finally, it's here, I can relax."
VALENZUELA: You'd think so, right? But it didn't feel that way to me. Why people were focusing so much on "Hey Jealousy," I couldn't grasp. I felt they were missing out on the rest of the album.....
TMP: But when they bought the record because of "Hey Jealousy" they got to hear the other songs.
VALENZUELA: True, but a lot of kids just bought the single. I don't know, it just makes everything more intense and pressurized. I know Blind Melon has felt that way, too. Suddenly, you're in the spotlight and you have to perform. But it feels disproportionate somehow. Don't get me wrong, OK; success is awesome and it frees you up in so many ways and it's what every band works for. But it's also an overwhelming trip.
It seems the business has changed so much in the last 15 years or so. MTV can just snap its jumbo fingers and almost create these overnight sensations, and the industry is structured now to where the companies can just milk one record's success for years because it's a sure thing. Hey, our next record may not have a Top 10 single, right? So keep pushing this one. Years ago you had time to develop as an artist and a band and you could build your success to a manageable level. Or maybe it's just that fewer people were scrutinizing you.
TMP: But all those years of touring in relative obscurity, away from the national limelight, isn't that the forum to grow artistically? Isn't that when you learn to handle the small pressures in anticipation of the larger pressures to come?
VALENZUELA: Ideally, yes, and to a certain degree, for us anyway, that was true. We were very successful in the Southwest. We could always get a gig and make enough money to buy things and eat. But the hype of the "next big thing" that occurs when you get national attention...well, there's no way to prepare for that.
TMP: Does MTV have too much power?
VALENZUELA: Well, as the recipient of that power, it's hard for me to knock MTV! But in an abstract way, it's unusual that the video age can make or break an artist so seemingly arbitrarily.
I wish people listened to the radio more or took it upon themselves to seek out really good music and not sit back and be spoon-fed by this huge conglomerate. But maybe that's wishful thinking. Times change and all you can ever do is try to change with them.
TMP: So what's ahead in the future for the Gin Blossoms?
VALENZUELA: Well, we will tour throughout the summer. You know, it's a bit of a war, really--a war inside you. On the one hand you want to make as much money and grab as much security as you can 'cause you never know when this gravy train will pass by again, right? But you didn't really get into this for the money. You got into it for the music and the love of playing. And that love actually carries you through the rough times. But you begin to wonder when you can get back to the creativity of doing what you love most. So it's a bit of a problem, really.
We'll go into the studio probably in the fall and try and have a new record early next year. And maybe the "next big thing" will be here and the pressure will be off us for a while!
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